The United Church, Saskatchewan’s largest religious organization, has entered the debate on nuclear wastes. Its annual conference May 28th in Moose Jaw passed a resolution “prohibiting the transport or storage of high level nuclear waste across Saskatchewan”. This comes when the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) is looking for a “willing community” to take nuclear wastes; which seems orchestrated, as last year the government-appointed Uranium Development Partnership (UDP) recommended the same thing. In spite of overwhelming opposition in public consultations, the government has given this the green light. The corporate lobby is substantial; one UDP member, Saskatoon-based uranium giant Cameco which co-owns Ontario’s Bruce Power nuclear power consortium, has long advocated Saskatchewan becoming a nuclear dump.
The United Church policy notes that nuclear reactor waste contains over 200 chemicals “which are radioactive for thousands of years”. It calls for a permanent ban to protect water from “long term toxic poisons of radium, thorium and plutonium”, noting that “we already have a dangerous store of radium” in uranium mine tailings across the North. It notes that geological research has found “salt water under extreme temperature underlying the rock of the Pre-Cambrian Shield”, and that The US “has cancelled the Yucca Repository because of underground water movement, geological fault systems” and widespread public opposition.
A public debate over a nuclear waste ban is long overdue. Long before the NWMO targeted Saskatchewan, the AECL included Saskatchewan as a potential sites for a nuclear dump, even though no such wastes were produced here. Even after the eight-year federal Panel reported in 1998 that Canadians didn’t support geological disposal, the federal Liberals gave the industry which produces the wastes a mandate to implement this “plan”. A Manitoba and Quebec ban on nuclear wastes has concentrated industry pressure on Saskatchewan.
The “public acceptance” strategy hoped for approval for Bruce Power’s nuclear plants on the North Saskatchewan River, since once we produced our own wastes we couldn’t complain about our “civic duty” to take them from elsewhere. This has failed. With the government seemingly working with industry on another tack, there isn’t a lot of time for the public to become better informed. While the Sask Party government doesn’t want this to become an election issue, and the Lingenfelter-led NDP won’t risk exposing its uranium policies to more scrutiny, the outpouring of opposition during the UDP consultations shows the grass-roots cares deeply about this issue.
THE RURAL SOUTH COULD BE TARGETED
This is not only a concern for northerners who already have a legacy of uranium mine tailings. A serious proposal to bury nuclear wastes under the Williston Basin in southern Saskatchewan was published in the 2006 Saskatchewan Geological Survey. Geological consultant Brian Brunskill argues that “the thickness of the overlying strata … would provide suitable confinement from the biosphere for a period longer than the radioactive material is likely to be hazardous.” His proposal has continental ramifications, for “the deepest part of the Saskatchewan portion of the basin, south of Estevan near the Canada-USA border…is about 3.5 km thick”. I’m sure this has been noted by US nuclear authorities who are back to square one after cancelling their Yucca project.
How does this proposal stand up to common sense and multidisciplinary science? In 2005 the NWMO estimated there will be 3.6 million bundles of nuclear wastes if all current reactors complete their expected life cycle. A phase-out of nuclear power however could greatly reduce this radioactive legacy. But Brunskill doesn’t consider how a non-nuclear energy policy would reduce the production of wastes that he admits will be “hazardous for hundreds of thousands of years”. Seemingly value-free and passive in the service of the powerful, he simply asserts that “current drilling technologies are quite capable” of creating an underground nuclear waste dump. In view of what’s happening in the Gulf of Mexico it’s ironic that he mentioned “BP’s directionally drilled oil wells at the Wytch Farm Oil Field in Dorset, UK” as one proof. The Gulf disaster shows the uncertainties with deep-sea drilling; drilling far down into the Precambrian Shield will carry its own surprises. It is one thing to drill to bring oil up to the earth’s surface, but quite another to try to keep radioactive wastes placed underground from coming back to the surface. Brunskill saying, “it is likely that the stagnant or downward-flow potential of the brines would ensure that contamination due to container failure would remain in the very deep geosphere” sounds a bit like a geological crap shoot.
“THE ROAD TO HELL IS PAVED…”
The road to hell on earth is indeed paved with good intentions…and self-delusion. There is something innocently naïve about a proposal that doesn’t consider the problems transporting 3.6 million nuclear waste bundles to southern Saskatchewan. Imagine the trains and trucks with heavily armed security going through our communities, day in and day out for decades. And remember that Manitoba, standing between us and Ontario’s nuclear plants, has banned high-level wastes.
Brunskill ignores how drilling would compromise the “natural containment” of the waste. He concludes that placing 3.6 million bundles end-to-end would require about 2,000 km. He then estimates the cost of this much drilling 3000 meters under southern Saskatchewan, and calculates “If each horizontal repository section were 5000 meters long then, about 400 repositories would be required”. Think of the scale and probability of failure. Though he admits some technical challenges, he thinks the casing to hold the spent fuel rods could simply be “cemented in place”. Such ecological naiveté reminds me of when the French company Amok proposed that thorium and radium at Cluff Lake be isolated from the environment by being placed in cement caskets. These were cracking and leaking within a decade. (The half-life of thorium which steadily decays into radium and radon gas is 76,000 years.) Writing as if geological containment is akin to laying tiles in a house meant to last a few generations, he continues, “…there is an opportunity to inject grouting compound into any fractures that may transect the hole…”
Seemingly unaware of the proliferation risks from separating plutonium from spent fuel bundles, Brunskill simply lists as an advantage of his proposal that in the future “the containers could be transferred to a new repository”; continuing that “the stored nuclear fuel would also be in an abandoned position if future decision-makers decide to permanently abandon the material”. Rather than acknowledging the urgent issue of nuclear proliferation, Brunskill defers to “decision-makers”, who for seven decades have themselves deferred the matter.
There is some irony that this argument for burying nuclear wastes in southern Saskatchewan undercuts the NWMO’s proposal. Brunskill questions the heavy reliance of the NWMO on “engineered barriers …to retard the rate of contamination into the host rock resulting from any material failure.” He says that “It can be assumed that virtually all engineered barriers will eventually fail”; what environmentalists have been saying for decades. He is very clear that, “Given the large volume of bundles to store, the potential for premature failure of engineered barriers…is significant”. In his proposal “Natural systems are emphasized as they ensure permanent isolation and containment…” While he’s critiqued the NWMO concept, he’s held on to the same naïve absolutism.
The United Church is to be congratulated for calling for a nuclear waste ban. What other groups will now follow their lead?